by Roger Hart
Winter, 1960. Pickerington, Ohio. Dixie Cover's basement. Sixteen of us, a carefully balanced eight boys and eight girls, one third of our ninth-grade class, crowded in a tight circle between the clothes washer and the hot water tank. On the floor, a Coke bottle spun in a green blur, its neck going around and around like the hand of some cosmic clock.
The dim light from the top of the basement steps, the gray concrete walls, soft dark shadows. Pink plastic bowls full of potato chips and pretzels on a wobbly, blue card table; a record player on the dryer spinning forty-fives. Randy Beatty and Trudy Bucy in the dark beneath the steps. Gwen watching the bottle, chewing her lip, the two of us shooting nervous glances back and forth.
Gwen and I had this thing for each other, and we worried about who we might be matched up with, who we might be expected to kiss.
Neither of us had ever mentioned the thing we had, but we knew from the looks and smiles given and got and from the way our elbows touched when we sat side by side in the school library. We'd rocked back and forth together with the Righteous Brothers at the ninth-grade dance, her hair as soft as dandelion fluff against my lips. We'd bumped hips, stepped on each other's toes, but we'd never kissed.
As the bottle slowed, Gwen glanced up the basement steps, I nodded, and we scrambled upstairs to bright lights and Dixie's father, who was watching the Ohio State basketball team play for the national championship. Gwen and I sat on the sofa, held hands beneath a cross-stitched pillow showing a cowboy roping a calf, and watched the game, throwing glances back and forth between us as quick and sly as the basketball passed between Havlicek and Lucas.
A month later Coke bottles caused problems again: my dad's promotion from Coke truck driver to bottling plant supervisor in Cleveland, a hundred miles away from Gwen and the small town of Pickerington.
We wrote back and forth, her letters filling a large shoe box beneath my bed. We promised to meet halfway between Columbus and Cleveland as soon as we could drive. We made plans to attend the same university. But distance and lack of money were obstacles we'd not anticipated, and, after a few years, the unkept promises embarrassed us, the letters became less frequent and eventually stopped.
And then, years later, I was at the NCAA Tournament games in Louisville, Kentucky, and the announcer on the public address system said: "Gwendolyn Stead, please report to the information desk." He repeated the message—otherwise, I never would have believed it—and I'd have gone to see if it was possible, if it was her, even though the score was tied with only two minutes left, except the guy next to me leaped into the air—a three pointer by Ohio State—and dumped a quart of ice-cold Coke down the front of my pants.
Another. 1984. I was standing on the hillside at the Blossom Music Center outside Akron, waiting for the John Denver concert to begin and scanning the crowd with binoculars, watching couples make out on blankets and families playing cards or having picnics. A helicopter landed behind the pavilion, supposedly delivering John Denver, and for a few minutes we all waited for him to step out while the helicopter blades slowly spun around and around. From time to time thunder rumbled in the distance, and everyone would look at the dark wall of clouds building in the west, then go back to eating, kissing, dealing cards, or whatever.
So I was scanning the crowd when I saw a woman close to the stage with a pair of binoculars scanning back. We locked on to each other, our scans. We stared and I began walking her way, a funny feeling in my stomach like when the Coke bottle was spinning and I knew it was going to point at me. I waved.
She waved back. The dark clouds pushed closer. Then she yelled, yelled at the top of her lungs, and I could see her lips saying it before I heard her voice: "Moose!"
I wondered how she knew my old nickname, but even as I wondered, part of me understood, and I cupped my hands to my mouth and yelled "Jellies!" which had been my silly nickname for her.
I jumped and waved, and we began working toward each other, pushing through the crowd, around picnics and the couples making out. We were only a few blankets apart when lightning exploded behind the stage. A blue-white streak slicing the air. Everyone froze. Lightning cracked again and police sirens wailed and raindrops as big as grapes smacked the ground. People were yelling and screaming and there was the deafening roar of water pounding the hillside and pavilion roof.
I was swept up by the stampede, almost carried to the parking lot, where I sat in my car for an hour drying out, waiting. Eventually, the rain stopped, and I went back to the hillside, stood in the wet grass, but there was no sign of Gwen, so I went home.
Summer, 1989. The Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, a few miles north of Pickerington. I was standing in the midway, watching a couple of teenagers spin the wheel of fortune when I saw a sign on one of those white trailers: "Dixie's Lemonade." I'd only known one Dixie and the lady with black-going-to-gray hair could have been her, but I wasn't sure until the man standing behind her said, "Dixie," and she said something back, and I recognized her husky voice. I went over, said hi, told her my name and that I'd been at her fifteenth birthday party, the one in the basement.
She stared at me a moment, then started saying, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" like Martians were landing behind us on Main Street. "You're not going to believe this," she said, and the man in the lemonade stand, who turned out to be her husband, came over to see what the noise was about. Dixie pointed at my feet. "She was there. That exact spot."
I didn't know what she was talking about until she started yelling, "Gwen! Gwen!"
"God, I've got goose bumps," she said, showing me her arm, which did have goose bumps. "Gwen!" she yelled. I turned around, tried to find her in the crowd, but she was gone and she never came back.
Out of the blue, 1998. Painesville, Ohio. The kids in my science class were talking birthday party, so I went home from school thinking about that night in Dixie's basement, wondering what might have happened if Gwen and I had stayed downstairs and kissed. Probably nothing. Ninth grade is young, too young, really, to start a long-term relationship. I sat in my living room staring out the window at the street, watching dust devils spin paper cups and fast food bags into tight little tornadoes, reminiscing and what-iffing when my mother called to say she'd gone shopping in Columbus and whom did she bump into while looking at shoes in Lazarus?
"Guess," she said. But I couldn't, and she finally blurted out: "Carol, Gwen's mom! I haven't seen her in years." She said Carol told her that Gwen had been working part-time for the IRS in Cincinnati and had reviewed my tax return, although this was never to be revealed. (Regulations!)
"You believe it?" my mother asked.
I said, "No," but I did.
My mother talked about fate and destiny and said I should give Gwen a call and wouldn't that be something. "After all these years," she said.
I said it would be something all right, but you never know.
I figured if I called things might work out for awhile, and we might start dating. That part would be fun and might lead to other things, and that would be more than fun. And in time, maybe not too long of a time—because we were both in our fifties with the sense that there is less time to waste—we'd get married. Inevitable, almost. The stories we could tell! We might even end up on television or in the newspapers or in some magazine. And then a few years later things would start going downhill—they almost always do—and I'd wonder if the Coke in my lap and the lightning had been signs that we should have stayed apart. And she'd be wondering the same thing, and pretty soon we'd stop talking and laughing because we'd already said everything there was to say and nothing seemed funny any more. We'd bump into each other in the kitchen, get in each other's way, and argue about money. Never enough! My hand on her knee would feel like a weight, and her habit of biting her lip would no longer be cute. We'd hug the edges of the bed at night instead of each other. We'd both be miserable and lonely and we'd think about having affairs although we'd never think of them that way. We'd end up in divorce court—yes, yes, look at the statistics!—and every time we ran into each other after that would be an embarrassment, a dark day we would want to forget.
Why take a chance? Run from the room, run up the steps, watch the ballgame on TV.
But then I thought, what the hell, and I called.
Roger Hart is a student in the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His story collection Erratics recently won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and will be published this fall by Texas Review Press.